|The Taras Shevchenko [Poet of Ukrainian Identity] Monument, Lviv, Ukraine|
|The Present-day Site of the Munich Agreement that doomed Czechoslovakia in Sep 1938|
In my capacity as “The Org Guy,” I look at what organizations do with people, and I tend to eschew politics, since there are enough talking heads out there. But in my opinion, the recent events in Ukraine demonstrate significant issues with huge organizational and societal implications, issues that should concern us all.
First, despite the current emphasis on diversity in American culture, in Europe national or even tribal identity can still exert a powerful influence on people and their behavior. The Russians are playing the card of “national identity” to the fullest in Ukraine right now, for all the wrong reasons. Putin’s thuggish behavior is eerily reminiscent of Hitler’s advances into Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland in 1938 and 1939. Hitler annexed each of those independent nations in the name of “protecting” German nationals beyond the borders of the Third Reich.
Second, in the “we’ve seen this movie before” department, we should recall that the responses of the Western democracies in 1938, as Hitler secured Austria and a part of Czechoslovakia (Sudetenland), were pitifully weak. On 30 September 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned to England from negotiations in Munich with Hitler where the Western powers allowed Hitler to annex Sudetenland (a predominantly German-speaking area) from Czechoslovakia. Upon his return, Chamberlain triumphantly declared, “Peace for our time.” Less than six months later, Hitler seized all of Czechoslovakia. At least at that point Chamberlain realized he’d been played for a fool, and he began to prepare his nation for war. When Hitler invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, once again invoking the plight of the “oppressed German minority” and inserting German soldiers into Poland in fake Polish uniforms to create a phony pretext (the Gleiwitz Incident), the Second World War began. In less than one year from that date, the British Empire would be led by a man who had long warned about Hitler’s aggression: Winston Churchill.
The immediate reactions of Western democracies to Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine are equally pitiful, at least at the time of this blog posting. Just as Putin seems to be using Hitler’s playbook, the Western democracies seem to be using Chamberlain’s Munich playbook. While it may be important for politicians in democracies to “create the right narrative” for their constituents, such an effort is irrelevant when a predator is on the loose outside their borders.
The West needs to “man up” in a hurry. The first step is to coldly comprehend what is at stake. Ukraine is an internationally recognized (including by the Russian Federation) independent nation. Yes, it possesses venal politicians (what nation doesn’t, I might ask), but the recent demonstrations in Kiev clearly show that a significant portion of their population wants something better. The Ukrainians want to be part of the West. That means they aspire to have a system of laws, processes, and institutions where power is openly channeled and monitored. Most importantly, it also means that they want to be part of a culture, society, and polity that foster growth. The culture of cumulative improvement has propelled the West in the last two hundred years to elevate living standards, both materially and psychologically, to a degree inconceivable in previous human history. The West changed the human perception of wealth from the finite pie, or the zero-sum game, to the ever-expanding pie, and this has changed attitudes and behaviors for the better on a vast scale. But not everywhere – a good portion of the globe still behaves with a zero-sum mindset.
Vladimir Putin, like Adolf Hitler and other tyrants, firmly stands in the camp of the finite pie. If someone has something of value, they will try to seize it. This is reflected in Russia’s utter dependence on the extraction of natural resources for its wealth. While the basis of wealth in the West is human talent, the vital force that drives sustainable growth, Russia under Putin represses any talent that could be a threat to central control by the current vainglorious megalomaniac. The net that tyrants cast to limit potential competition is very large, indeed. The foundation of Putin’s power is the high price of oil, not the output of free human beings. The results are dismally clear: Russia is a dying nation, with low birth rates, low life expectancy, and the constant loss of young talent to other nations. Just as the Soviet system crushed the human spirit, so do Putin and his lackeys, under the slightly different guise of rabid nationalism. Many Ukrainians know the choice they face: it even goes beyond freedom vs. tyranny; it is between a promising life and a slow death.
After acknowledging this harsh reality, the West must now resolve not to allow the Ukrainians to be sucked into the Russian black hole, from which no light ever seems to emerge. The West must consider all its options. Having been outwitted by Russia in the Republic of Georgia, in negotiations with Iran, in the Syrian Civil War, and now in Ukraine, the West must show that it finally recognizes what is at stake. Despite the pablum being uttered by some politicians that “freedom will always prevail,” freedom does not always triumph. Progress is fragile; it must be protected and defended. Unfortunately, tyrants with their zero-sum mindsets only respond to the direct and forceful denial of their schemes. The West (the English-speaking world, Europe, Japan, and other aspiring nations) has the means; now it must find the will, and quickly. The West should not waste time constructing a comforting narrative to rationalize its weakness; the West needs a Churchill to lead the way.